ISSN 0024-5089
Copyright © 2010 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.

Volume 56, No.3 - Fall 2010
Editor of this issue: M. G. Slavėnas

Birutė Pūkelevičiūtė 1923-2007


Translated by M. Gražina Slavėnas

BIRUTĖ PŪKELEVIČIŪTĖ was one of the most colorful and diverse talents in the Lithuanian émigré community. The excerpts translated here are from Atradimo ruduo (Autumn of Revelation), Chicago: Darna, 1990. 

M. GRAŽINA SLAVĖNAS, Ph.D., is the author of Janina Degutytė: Poems/Poezija (Vilnius: Rašytojų Sąjungos leidykla, 2004). Her translations have appeared in Lituanus and various other publications.


Birutė Pūkelevičiūtė – poet, playwright, actress, novelist – was one of the most colorful and diverse talents in the Lithuanian émigré community. The excerpts translated here by M. Gražina Slavėnas are from Pukelevičiūtė’s post-modern dramatic prose poem “Mass for a Traitor’s Wife,” a meditation in many voices based on the real-life betrayal of a Lithuanian anti-Soviet resistance fighter. The poem revolves around the moral dimensions of guilt, love, punishment and mercy, focusing on the women behind the traitor. The poem was published in Atradimo ruduo (Chicago: 1990).

A Reading 

This reading is from the Book of Proverbs about the perfect wife who was worth more than even a strand of pearls. 

Such a wife – over and above the customary good qualities (frugal, virtuous, smart and strong) – keeps rising at dawn, prepares wax and flax, embroiders the bed covers, puts her hand on a spindle and her fingers on the spinning wheel.

About the husband not much is said. He sits on the council with the other trusted elders of the land.
He sits there without distractions. His wife in the meantime has saved enough to start a vineyard.
(Today’s reading ends here.)

But should the husband become dishonored and be shamefully removed from his place among the trusted men of the land, it is of no use for the wife to keep rising at dawn, burning the light through the night, placing her fingers on the spindle and turning the wheel.
For the stain which blemished her husband’s name has stained her honor too.
And it is of no consequence that she was a perfect wife worth more than a strand of pearls.


We, neophytes, leave after “Credo.”
Only Christians break bread.
* * *
The most fearsome act is the conception of a human life.
At that one instant everything is preordained and in its place: eye lashes, kidneys, each tiny hair in our nostrils, eye color, smile, gait, bouts of madness, the rapture of prayerfulness.

Also our gender. One of two. As simple as a naked sword pulled from its sheath.

Therefore forgiveness must be obtained before conception.
While the curse for a crime has not yet been laid upon us, to pursue us unto the seventh generation.
Especially for a blood crime.

Blood had been shadowing Dova for a long time.
(Blood is patient.)
After Dova conceived, it stayed closely behind her wherever she went.
Blood is a scarlet bloodhound leaping through the woods in pursuit of a scent, pressing its thin belly against the bony frame.
Blood is a scarlet snake. It slithers underground, its triangular head narrowed, its lethal tongue pulled in until the first sound of fugitive steps above.

Dova sensed that blood was chasing her.
The man whose seed she was carrying in the warmth of her womb was guilty of spilling blood.
Kastantas’s blood.
Of firing two shots.
(Two shots were necessary. The first failed to bring down his friend.)

It happened at the border crossing, in the forest of Liubavas.
Kastantas had to die: he had begun to suspect Arminas.
Therefore he had to die – before they reached the border.
He had to die here in these woods of Liubavas.

Clover, white-headed clover,
two men left. Only one returned.

A team of two was sent on this mission.
Only one reached the West.

Be merciful, you who record debts, who count bullets, bandage wounds, guard morgues, finish caskets.
Do not speak – you who found a slain man in the woods, saw footsteps in the snow, wrapped a dead body in a shroud, dug a grave – have pity and keep your silence.
If you won’t remember, no one will.

Meanwhile silvery snow bells were ringing all across Lithuania. As if a priest were carrying the Eucharist in his sleigh. From one distant place to another.

In the midst of the forest white bones shine in the ground like stars. An oriole on top of a spruce sings about them: she alone remembers Kastantas’s face.

Be merciful.

This woman here is in anguish.
She will pay double for the fare across the bridge.
She trembles for the child ripening in her womb.
(She had never trembled for herself).

Often fear engulfs her. Like a storm of black flames.
The woman had a dreadful dream.
A furious bull was charging her, with eyes like glowing coals, genderless.
Have pity for the child. The evil eye could fall on him.
Do not wish him any harm: a clubfoot, cleft lip, crossed eyes, hunched back, a withered hand, or some other – deformity.

The birth was unexpectedly easy.
Her firstborn slipped out of her body like a fish through opened palms.
He was baptized Lucius-René: a double name.

It would have been more merciful if we could say that Lucius – (he just turned twenty) – had died in childhood. Arminas’s little son had a lovely funeral.
An evergreen grows at his gravesite.
On the head stone is an inscription:
“We did not enjoy you for long.”

Yes – it would have been more merciful.
And we are in need of mercy.
Haven’t we, neophytes, just bought a mass for the traitor’s wife?


It is recorded in the chronicles that in the year 1440 an evil deed was perpetrated in Lithuania. Zło weliko.

On Palm Sunday, after the courtiers had assembled in the Church of Trakai for the Sacrifice of the Holy Mass and the Lithuanian ruler Žygimantas was praying alone in the tower of his castle behind locked doors, the conspirators scratched at the door (as the king’s tamed she-bear was known to do) and having gained entrance they burst into the chapel and killed the king.
They did it the old proven way: stabbing him to death with their daggers.

The first to sense blood were the Jews of Trakai who with mournful wails began to close their shutters.

Zło weliko. Zło weliko

The harrowing news reached the assembly in the church during Consecration, at that most sacred moment when in honor of the Almighty celestial armies of angels and archangels and cherubs and seraphs descend upon the earth
* * *
In her honorable pew (by the altar) swooned the wife of Jonas Daugirdas, the governor of Vilnius, a traitor to the king.
Nothing more is reported in the chronicles.

Yet many other foul deeds were perpetrated in Lithuania and not just in royal castles. Many wives were swooning and weeping, burning pledges, wrapping axes into shawls, washing blood stains, covering lights with shaking hands, knowing nothing and knowing everything.
Their knowledge was mute like the gasping mouth of a fish.
* * *
The twelve sworn jurors reached a unanimous verdict.

Through her husband the wife is also infected with the Black Plague.
When two bodies become one, their embrace is a covenant against the cruel earth. Together they are strong, together they are brave, their goodness blossoms like a two-petaled rose. But an evil deed – grows into a two-headed monster which devours both.

It is easier for a mother.
Even the mother of a traitor and a murderer.
She remains unblemished.
She separated a long time ago.

(Every birth is a separation, a bodily renunciation, an offering of the newborn child to the world.)
Therefore a mother is not guilty.

She is pierced by infinite sorrow as by an arrow piercing the breast of a bullfinch.

The wound is deep and unhealing, often fatal.

But it is clean.

Agnus Dei
* * *
Dova glanced through the window and noticed that the path to the house was completely dark.
The lamp in the bushes was dark too.
So was the name shield: Arminas.
(Obviously, the bulb had burned out.)

Dova liked her lamp. It looked like a small bird cage. Behind the glass twinkled a little flame like candlelight.
And candles remind of fairy tales:

The young robber ascended the scaffold.
“Mercy, mercy!” – shouted the crowd.
The king ordered to light a candle.
“So be it. The executioner shall wait until this candle burns to the ground.
While it burns, is anyone here willing to die in the robber’s stead?”

One was willing: the king’s only daughter.

(The robber was also a poet, and the princess was fond of his ballads.
* * *
Sometimes we can die for one another.
But we cannot wrestle for another person’s soul.
(Nor could Dova.)

Even if we should succeed in obtaining absolution, it is only for ourselves.
Not for anyone else.
We can share only the temporal, but not eternity.
It is pitiable that we cannot win anything permanent for each other.
(Not just pitiable, it is cruel.)

Ah, but we shall all sail into the sea, like Venetians.
On the Day of Ascension: to watch the wedding of Venice and the sea.

A festive flotilla will escort the golden vessel of the Doge.
When we will reach the open sea, church bells on the shore will sound, a cloud of doves will rise, and cannons roar like the lions of the Evangelist Mark.

Then the Doge will throw his ceremonial ring into the water and shout:
“We wed you, sea. We are now tied inseparably!”

We too are inseparably intertwined. We are like a cluster of grapes.
Hold us safe in the palm of your hand, oh Lamb of God. Do not scatter us one by one. Do not separate your flock with your iron cane. We gave birth to each other, and we buried each other, we nursed, we cursed, we provided comfort, we kissed, we strangled, we judged and we justified.
(You yourself tied us together with all our contradictions).
Therefore we are bubbling like fiery lava in the bowels of the earth until we burst through the mouth of a volcano into the light.

We were sent out to fight for the honor of the Lord and now we are gathered here in the valley of our last victory like an army of defeat.
We brought our wounded.
We brought the bodies of our dead on stretchers.
Would you have us abandon them to the jackals?

There are no heroes among us.
We have survived only because the spear pierced not us but our best friend.

Truly, we are losers all.

On the day when stars and moon will abandon the earth, when the seven seals will be broken and the scrolls unrolled, on that day we will be called by our name each one of us.

The Commander will step out of his blue silk tent. His face will shine like the rainbow above a field of lilies. His hair will shimmer like golden sunrise in a windy cloud.

The Commander will pause in surprise.
Hearing the lamentations of those chosen for eternal happiness, watching their sorrowful leave-taking from the condemned, he will raise his right hand and all loudspeakers will announce his pardon for everyone.

He will be merciful to the people who had been chosen.
They would not survive a separation.

(The Lamb of God had taught them to love.)